Using the past to inform the future: three health care hopes for 2022

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Jan 20, 2022

With the beginning of 2022 marked by yet another wave of COVID-19, it’s easy to feel like there is a dark cloud hanging over the year already, despite it only being a few weeks old. The energy feels similar to March 2020, in several ways. 

But every cloud has a silver lining. Throughout the pandemic, health care innovations boomed, with the industry acknowledging unmet needs and adapting to meet them. COVID-19 shined a spotlight on  deep, pre-existing disparities and inequities impacting individual, community, and population health across the country. And care providers and innovators acted heroically to address some of the most pressing needs threatening lives and livelihoods. 

Yet the health care environment is still ripe for innovation as we head into the new year. With that in mind, I have three hopes for health care for the year ahead.  

1. Enhancing the focus on the drivers of health

COVID’s early waves brought social needs to the forefront of health care, enhancing the focus on – and conversation around – drivers of health. Though many organizations, both inside and outside of health care, did work addressing the drivers of health prior to the pandemic, momentum really picked up around issues such as food insecurity, housing insecurity, and unstable internet connectivity

Addressing drivers of health, or what are more commonly referred to as the social determinants of health is, admittedly, a daunting task for a couple of reasons. First, there isn’t a significant evidence base to support which programming efforts are the most effective across each driver. Second, social, economic, and environmental interventions often require significant investments of both time and money.

Despite these potential setbacks, drivers of health are seeing a drastic surge of interest and energy, particularly in housing and food insecurity. One such display of momentum is the emergence of the for-profit social determinants industry, with 58 companies already valued at $18.5 billion as of July 2021. 

Throughout 2022, I am hopeful  this momentum will continue to grow. I hope to see continued deepening of relationships between providers and community organizations, increased social needs and jobs to be done assessments during primary care visits, and embedding community health workers within care processes. There is a lot of great work being done to uncover and address patients’ jobs to be done around drivers of health, and I’m hopeful that will grow over the next year.

2. Tightening mental and physical health’s close-knit relationship

If the past two years have taken a toll on your mental health, you are not alone. Rates of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression grew significantly during the pandemic, with almost four times the rate of reported depression and anxiety in January 2021, compared to the entire first half of 2019. The need for mental health to be addressed with the same fervor and intensity as physical health is at an all time high.

Despite the interplay between the two, the business and care models for treating mental and physical health often operate independently. There is also a shortage of mental health professionals and stigma around seeking mental health care. As a result, millions of people can (and do) go without necessary mental health care each year. 

Throughout the pandemic, national and international attention towards mental health skyrocketed as increases in worker burnout, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse soared.  More dollars and people were dedicated not just to addressing mental health, but integrating it into primary care – both in person and virtually. And health care payers and providers alike are acquiring mental health startups; Centene’s purchase of Magellan Health is allowing them to provide integrated physical and behavioral health care to its members.

I am hopeful more will occur in this space, mainly in the increased integration of behavioral health into primary care. As more players enter the mental and behavioral health care space, we will see more efforts to address mental and physical care in a cohesive, integrated way. 

3. Aiding the rapid increase in telehealth’s scope

The pandemic was telehealth’s moment to shine, with virtual care booming alongside offices closing and patients wanting to avoid trips outside the home. Shifts in payment from private and public payers made this possible. 

But the momentum in telehealth isn’t just around accessing primary care while at home. Innovations in telehealth such as remote patient monitoring, help to mitigate chronic disease risk factors and to manage existing chronic conditions. Additionally, consumers are continuing to show a preference for digital health options, with 80% of those surveyed preferring at least some level of online communication with their doctor. 

Over the next year, we will see increased use of telehealth innovations to manage chronic disease.  One example is the monitoring of kidney disease complications, themselves an indicator of several chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Organizations will also widen their lenses on telehealth, discovering how they can address the different health needs of varying populations through this modality. 

Health care innovators are showing time and time again that they can rise to meet the most pressing challenges, no matter how difficult they seem. If the past two years have shown us anything, it’s that adaptability is key; the health care industry needs to be ready and prepared to adjust to the consistent evolution in how care is delivered. As changes continue to surface, I’m hopeful for this coming year, and cannot wait to see what new innovations emerge over the next 12 months. 

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.